As I was watching Bill O’Brien talk to the media at the NFL Combine — we’re definitely in triple digits for how many times total I’ve watched him talk over the last five years — it occurred to me that there’s little to be done at this point.
I don’t mean that to sound dramatic, as if O’Brien is steering the Texans into an iceberg or something. I just mean that we’ve largely reached the point where his coaching style and influence is a known thing that we’ll have no deep surprises with. O’Brien is going to talk about how it’s important that he improves, but he’s not actually going to change anything stylistically unless things are completely wrecked, and nobody above him is going to hold him accountable on those words. If the players are good enough to play him into better situations, so be it. If not, well, the Texans will probably struggle at some point. Nothing I write is changing this, and nothing you as a fan can say — yes, even the people who leave Periscope comments about how O’Brien sucks because he won’t trade for John Ross — matters.
There’s a powerful sense of helplessness around being a fan today that I think has grown and festered as we’ve moved into the 2000s and 2010s. What I keep coming back to is that sports teams are, in a sense, no different than O’Brien. They don’t have anybody to answer to.
Impartial commissioners as a model that would try to do what is best for the game have been replaced by “Yes sir” commissioners who serve only the interest of the owners. Sports teams have become such big content providers, and rocking the boat in sports journalism so discouraged, that a team can essentially hold any combative local media hostage by their press pass if they want to. National media? If you work somewhere that broadcasts the games, prepare to get tattled on the minute you cross the line. Finally, home fans are completely irrelevant to today’s sports experience. Someone has paid for the TV rights, advertisers have given even more knowing that sports is essentially the only game in town that still is watched live. The Chargers can play in a shoebox and make money. The Raiders can take eight years to build a stadium in Las Vegas and be profitable. Any fans that show up are a bonus.
As a Houstonian, I see a lot of anger directed at sports fans for not showing up on time. “Fans as empty seats” at the start of a Rockets game is practically a trope. Texans games are dead until 15 minutes to kickoff. The Astros won a World Series recently so they’re exempt for a bit, but in the early 2010s that stadium was a mausoleum. The passion of the fans is always critiqued, but not necessarily the role of teams in how they make fans feel.
When you think of the purely transactional nature that these businesses — yes, not teams, businesses — take now, is that actually a surprise? There was never a logical reason to be a fan of the local sports team. They never actually represented you or your city. When you pull back the curtain on this entire industry as some teams have done over the past decade in just shamelessly accumulating money and giving unlimited time for “the process” to play out, and you just roll a d20 to decide which non-answer you’ll give to the press, why should fans be engaged?
Because you’ve partnered with Fast Food Joint A to McChicken us if someone hits a home run in the right inning? Because some of your players did some charity things and you taped it? Because you salute the armed forces? Neat, that makes you just like everybody else with a platform and a focus group. The reason those Texans fans are outside instead of waiting for the game to kickoff is because the tailgate is more of a bonding point than the sport itself. There are real people to talk to and discover out there instead of rotating Instagram selfies on a board. (And to be clear, I think the Texans social media do a good job of creating videos that engage fans! But they can only do so much.)
It takes a special amount of humanity to engage people in 2019. You’ve gotta have Steve Kerr as your head coach talking about racial relations. You need your star players taking an interest in struggles that people can actually relate to. Sure, some teams have a transcendent superstar that is just so fun to watch it doesn’t matter. But most teams are not blessed with that.
If you can’t do humanity by association, you need to at least do humanity by storyline. “We messed this up, so we’re changing it like this,” or at the very least “this team is rebuilding/this team is ready to contend/this team is contending.” If you stay stuck in the same storyline for too long, you become irrelevant. Hell, with how quickly storylines are expected to change these days, teams get criticized just for being in the same section of the story too long. Nobody identifies with “The Process Is Happening” for five years. Most of us have tried to fix something in our lives on our own at some point, be it learning how to get better at a skill, overcoming a personal barrier, or something like that. That doesn’t last for five years.
When you come at sports from a purely transactional place, where the games are just a business, you’re never going to see the humanity.
And I guess that’s what drives me nuts about every O’Brien press conference. This isn’t about how objectively smart what he says is or what motives he has to share actual information. I feel like he’s telling you, in the most direct way that he knows how, that he is not here to talk you out of your apathy.
He is here to induce it. He understands football in his way and, other than an infusion of talent too good to ignore, that way will play itself out in a pretty inevitable way unless fortune is heavily for or against him.
As teams have gotten more and more inured to outside criticism and accountability, they just continue to drift farther away from having a coherent storyline. The Texans are hardly the only team to do this — I spent 6,000 words in Football Outsiders Almanac 2018 talking about the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills. They’re all the same way. If you run a football team like the CEO of a corporation, you can’t be surprised when your fanbase starts skeptically applying the same value calculation to you, wondering what exactly they’re supposed to be getting out of this.